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Have we settled on a name for the events of January 6 yet?

“Capitol Riot” is what I hear most. To me, riot sounds too spontaneous, too haphazard, when increasingly it appears there was more than a little plotting and collusion.

I was hoping for the “Epiphany Putsch.” I mean, why use only one exotic word, when two will do?

Seriously, the tremors of last month’s assault on the Capitol in Washington are still reverberating. So much has been written and spoken. So much still remains unanswered.

I’m going to go down a somewhat peripheral rabbit hole. I’ve waited a while to share this because as you’ll soon see, it might be viewed as criticism of the “left.” I don’t want it misconstrued as giving even the slightest shred of support or comfort to the destructive mob, their inciters, or their backers.

As events unfolded on January 6, “banana republic” was invoked by many to describe the events. We saw verbiage like “third-world dictatorship” and “can’t believe it’s happening here,” or “this isn’t the America I know.”

It turns out language like that is problematic. I hadn’t realized. But now I understand what critics were saying.

There’s more than a whiff of condescension in “banana republic,” probably some racism too — toward developing nations, places governed by persons with more melanin than Joe Biden or me. To label the awful actions of January 6 as suited for a banana republic suggests the persistence of that irrepressible imperialism in Americans. Other kinds of people aren’t truly capable of governing themselves. We don’t want to say that out loud, but deep down do we still believe it?

As for comments like “this isn’t how we do things in America” or “I can’t believe it would ever happen here,” they disclose our lingering American exceptionalism, an understanding of American history propagated in elementary schools of the 1950s. Increasingly, aren’t we all aware that racism, repression, fear, and violence are baked right into the cake that is the United States?

In light of all this, I am going to avoid phrases like banana republic to describe corruption, mob violence, and coup d’etats.

But now I need to add that this was not how I was introduced to this conversation. If I had been, I probably wouldn’t be writing.

Instead, I saw comments that were scorching, shaming, dripping with invective and self-righteousness. The tone seemed to suggest that if it ever even crossed your mind to use the words banana republic in connection with the sacking of the Capitol, then you are an irredeemable, racist retrograde.

Of course no one likes being shamed, deemed ignorant, warped, pathetic, and hopeless. But especially on January 6, in the midst of a crisis, as people were reeling, emoting, and gushing on that day, didn’t seem like the time for the scolding finger of superiority to appear among left-leaning voices.

By and large, I inhabit the social media and commentary of the left, especially the Christian left. And there are always those who need to know that much more, be a little more enlightened, possess a deeper degree of purity, be just that much farther left than the typical milquetoast leftie. They love to play gotcha — to catch their insipid allies in their persistent racism, patriarchy, or ableism.

Beware of practicing your piety in public, Jesus warns. Beware too of always needing to show that you are the coolest, purest, most avant garde, least racist. In the history of Christianity, we might find similarities with the Gnostics. They were those privileged few who were admitted into the elevated secrets that lessers could not grasp. “Prophetic” is a label sometimes used to justify the behavior I’m criticizing. But being prophetic isn’t license to be an ass.

A few months ago I streamed the Russian miniseries, The Road to Calvary. It’s a soapy-history about the Russian Revolution. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d recommend it. Haven’t we all been eight episodes into a series and felt compelled to finish it?

Whatever it’s shortcomings, one thing I saw in The Road to Calvary was that no matter what side you took, there was always going to be a group who would take that view to a greater extreme, and then find reason to execute you as a traitor. This extreme group would soon be outflanked by an even more extreme splinter who deemed the previous group in need of execution. Should I call this behavior Stalinist or Maoist, evil, or simply innately human?

Yes, it is too easy, too privileged, to fall back on calls for civil and objective conversations. Can’t we see that demanding “reasonable debate” is like giving the home field advantage to the white, male, educated perspective? Likewise, the call to “be like Jesus” too often leads to passive compliance and spineless reticence among Christians at the very times when urgency is needed. I am guilty of all of this.

Nonetheless, the need to be the purest, the most enlightened, the most zealous, the truest believer, has to be equally destructive.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

8 Comments

  • Thank you. I needed that.

  • mstair says:

    “Can’t we see that demanding “reasonable debate” is like giving the home field advantage to the white, male, educated perspective?”

    “ … aren’t we all aware that racism, repression, fear, and violence are baked right into the cake that is the United States?

    Steve, I’m flipping your quotes in order here, because it is logic behind my observation:

    The taproot of our democracy germinated from a group of white, upper-class, slave-holding, land-owners. The “perfect union” they envisioned was not conceived from a complete reading/understanding of New Testament teachings. In fact, a hundred years later – they would have had to exclaim in reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation & the 14th. Amendment, “Where the ______ did that come from?” Just like we sola scriptura’s did when SCOTUS added Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges to the law of the land.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    This post I do not understand the animus of (it leaves me guessing), and maybe that’s because since last Spring I decided to avoid social media as much as I could (not because I’m spiritually superior but because I know that I’m so weak). I often feel isolated, but the peacefulness is worth it.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Seems to be, Steve, you are wondering how we can be “zealous” in our moderation, pointing out the dangers of the extreme left and the extreme right.
    Extremism is the issue: taking reasonable positions to their disastrous extremes. “Fight like hell” led not just to “peaceful, patriotic marching” but a supposed take-over of Congress and government officials. “Peaceful protestors against systemic racism are ravaged, extremely so. People get hurt.
    Responsible leaders respond to legitimate issues, sorting things out and urging the right way forward, pulling more and more folks on board.
    Thanks for contributing to this important discussion, Steve.

  • Todd Z says:

    Long time reader, first time poster. 🙂 Simply said, this was helpful. Trying to be a “faithful presence,” as James Davison-Hunter lays out in his book, “How to Change the World.”

  • David E Timmer says:

    My trusty, rusty Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines “banana republic” as “any small, usually Latin American country that is politically unstable and has a one-crop economy controlled by foreign capital.” More fulsomely, dictionary.com has “a small, poor country, often reliant on a single export or limited resource, governed by an authoritarian regime and characterized by corruption and economic exploitation by foreign corporations conspiring with local government officials.” Both of these formal definitions include a feature that often drops out in popular usage, namely, that the instability, corruption, and authoritarianism are symptoms of a deeper condition — control and exploitation by foreign corporations. (Interestingly, the term was coined in 1901 by the American writer O. Henry in a story based on his experiences in Honduras.) Perhaps it is time to retire the term, which carries more than a whiff of gringo condescension. But we do need a term for what it describes.

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